This guide explores card sorting, a user research method to help teams develop intuitive content structures. In user experience (UX) design, you must understand user expectations to group information effectively. Card sorting engages participants to categorize topics in a way they find logical. This approach uncovers user preferences for content arrangement to help create a coherent and user-friendly structure for websites or apps.
You’ve likely come across the concept of card sorting, whether or not you’re in UX. Researchers use the popular, low-tech research technique to organize data sets. It’s especially useful for information architecture, menu structures, workflows, and website navigation. While you may find it easy to run a card sort, there’s a massive difference between a flop and a success. Let’s discuss the do’s and don’ts so that you can start card sorting successfully.
What Is Card Sorting in UX Research?
Card sorting involves users in organizing information. Participants sort labeled cards into groups based on their understanding. This process reveals how users expect to find information on a website. You can use these insights to create intuitive and user-friendly website structures as a designer. This aims to align the website's organization with the users' mental models for seamless and efficient navigation.
Imagine a grocery store's website. In the card sorting session, users receive cards labeled with items such as Fruits, Vegetables, Dairy, and Bread. They then group these cards based on their logic.
One user might group 'Fruits' and 'Vegetables' together under 'Fresh Produce.'
Another might place 'Dairy' and 'Bread' under 'Daily Essentials.'
This process shows how different users categorize information. You can use these insights to organize the website's menu and categories. It will make it easy for shoppers to find what they need.
Design Consultant Donna Spencer provides an excellent example of a card sort in her IxDF Master Class, “How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture.”
Why Do We Use Card Sorting?
Card sorting helps you understand how people think so that you can arrange content in a way that makes sense to them.
Card sorting helps you understand people's thoughts and perspectives on various topics. It's more about gaining insights into concepts and ideas than just organizing a website's structure or navigation. A card sort can reveal how someone’s background and personal experience affect their thoughts.
Through a successful card sort, you will also learn the following:
What goes together and why
Different ideas and methods of organizing content
If people think similarly or differently
While people use card sorting more often to create IAs, website navigation, and menu structures, you can also use it for internal communication and politics.
In this clip, Donna Spencer explains one of the less obvious uses of card sorting and what it can tell us.
Although you’ll find card sorting effective in enhancing your IA, don’t expect it to create the IA for you. Card sorting, being qualitative and exploratory, often yields inconsistent results. This makes it unreliable to create an information architecture from scratch. Similarly, it can’t tell you whether your IA works. Even though the card sort will inform your IA, you won’t know if it’s good. Donna Spencer suggests a tree test instead.
In addition, card sorting is not suitable for these:
Definitive, black and white answers
Quantitative, statistically valid data
Advantages and Disadvantages of Card Sorting
When you consider user experience (UX) design methods, it's crucial to weigh the pros and cons of each tool. Card sorting is no exception. In this section, we’ll explore its advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Card Sorting
Simplicity: You’ll find very few techniques as easy as handing someone a deck of cards and asking them to sort them out.
Cost-Effectiveness: You’re talking about some plain card and either printer ink or pen ink. You may also use some sticky notes or some Sellotape.
Speed: You can run this exercise quickly and as many times as you need until you get the data you need.
Familiarity: People have been card sorting for centuries. It’s a technique that your users would understand with ease. So, they’d require very little explanation.
Insightful: While not the most in-depth, card sorting provides valuable insights into how users categorize information.
Disadvantages of Card Sorting
Task Ignorance: Card sorting doesn't always consider the practical application of data. Be cautious about translating those results into your product.
Inconsistency: Card sorting results can vary due to individual differences in perception and categorization.
Time-Consuming Analysis: Although quick to perform, you may find it lengthy to analyze card sorting results, especially with complex data sets.
Surface-Level Insights: The technique may not go enough into the fundamental issues or context. It might only offer a top-level view.
Simple to execute
May overlook practical tasks
Results vary among users
Quick to perform
Offers surface-level insights
Focuses on user input
Users have familiarity with the techniques used
Provides valuable insights
Types of Card Sorting
Card sorting is a versatile UX research technique with different types to suit various needs. Each type offers unique insights into how users categorize and understand information. Let's explore these card sorting methods in detail, along with examples for each.
1. Open Card Sorting
In open card sorting, participants sort cards into categories they create. This type is great if you want to know how users naturally group information without preconceived categories.
Another example could be a music streaming app. Users receive cards labeled with different genres, artists, and songs. They create categories like Workout Music, Relaxing Tunes, or Party Hits. This approach reveals how users might want their playlists organized.
2. Closed Card Sorting
Closed card sorting involves participants sorting cards into predefined categories. You’ll find this method useful when you want to test specific groupings or if you have a basic structure.
Another example could be an online bookstore. Users get cards with book titles and must sort them into categories like Fiction, Non-fiction, Biography, and Children’s books. This helps you refine the current categorization.
3. Hybrid Card Sorting
Hybrid card sorting blends open and closed card sorting. Participants sort cards into provided categories but can also create new ones. This method offers flexibility and deeper insights into user preferences.
Example: Take a travel website. Users sort destinations and activities into categories like Beaches, Mountains, and Cities. However, they can also create new categories like Adventure Travel or Family-friendly to offer more nuanced insights.
4. Reverse Card Sorting
Reverse card sorting, also known as tree testing, works in reverse. Instead of sorting cards, users find where a card should go in an existing structure. It's great for testing the intuitiveness of a site’s navigation. You can evaluate the results of the method by comparing how many users placed the item in the “right” category.
Example: Take a cooking website. You provide users with a specific recipe card, like Vegetarian Lasagna. They must find where it fits within a pre-arranged set of categories. This tests if the site's organization makes sense to the user.
5. Modified-Delphi Card Sorting
The Modified-Delphi card sorting method evolves with each participant. Initially, the first participant conducts a complete card sort where they organize and arrange the items in a way that makes sense to them. This forms the baseline model. Subsequent participants refine this model, each building upon the previous person's work. The process continues, with each participant iterating on the model left by the one before.
Example: A team designing a health app categorizes features like Exercise Tracking, Diet Plans, and Mental Wellness. Each participant sorts these features individually; then, they discuss their choices collectively to reach a consensus.
6. Remote Card Sorting
Remote card sorting allows participants to sort cards through online tools. This method is convenient to reach a broader and more diverse audience.
Example: An e-commerce site might use an online tool to have users sort product categories like Electronics, Home Goods, and Fashion. Participants complete the task on their computers instead of attending a formal session.
Tree Testing vs Card Sorting: Which One Should You Prefer?
Before we start with the evaluation, here’s a quick overview of both techniques:
In tree testing, users navigate through a simplified text version of the site's structure to find items. It reveals how easily they can locate information.
Card sorting helps you understand how users categorize information. Participants organize topics or items into groups that make sense to them.
William Hudson, UX designer and author, discusses tree testing in more detail. Watch this video to understand more about getting started with tree testing.
Choosing between these methods depends on your project's stage and goals. If your current IA seems problematic and you need to assess its effectiveness, start with tree testing. This method will show where users struggle to find information. It provides a clear picture of the areas that need improvement.
After you understand the shortcomings of your current IA through tree testing, proceed with card sorting. This method can help you understand how users think you should organize your content. An open card sort lets you capture your users' natural categorizations and terminologies, which is crucial for an intuitive and user-friendly IA.
Finally, conduct another tree test after reworking your IA based on card sorting insights. This will help you compare the new IA against the old one using similar tasks. This comparison will highlight the effectiveness of your changes. It’ll help you align your updated IA better with user expectations and behaviors.
What Tools Do You Need to Conduct a Card Sort?
Card sorting doesn’t require fancy tools. Using basic office supplies, you can sort with index cards and markers. However, there are several digital tools available to enhance the research process. Here’s an overview of six online tools that can help you streamline the card-sorting process.
Various online tools are available to facilitate this process, each with unique features. Here’s a detailed look at some popular card-sorting tools:
Optimal workshop card sort tool allows for open and closed card sorts and provides detailed analysis features. The platform offers automated analysis to help you save time with methods like Dendrograms and the Similarity Matrix. These features allow for quick identification of common themes and user mental models.
Optimal Sort supports unmoderated and moderated sorts to provide a seamless experience for participants. This tool delivers concrete user insights to eliminate the guesswork in design decisions. It also facilitates easy recruitment of participants through an in-app service for diverse input.
Pricing: Free, with paid plans starting at $25/month.
UserZoom, leveraging its Human Insight Platform, offers a comprehensive approach to card sorting that blends qualitative and quantitative research insights. This tool helps you understand how users perceive and categorize your content for optimizing website or app structures.
UserZoom goes beyond traditional card sorting as it provides recordings of participant sessions. You can observe and listen as users complete the test. This feature helps reveal answers to critical questions, for example, which tasks users find confusing or why they group content in specific ways.
The sentiment analysis feature highlights moments where participants face difficulties. This blend of quantitative data from card sort results and qualitative feedback from session recordings makes UserZoom a powerful tool for creating user-centric designs.
Pricing: Paid plans start at $250/month.
Miro is an online whiteboard ideal for collaborative efforts, including card sorting. Its simplicity and advanced digital capabilities make it perfect for UX design research. Miro mirrors the traditional whiteboard used in in-person card sorting sessions. The tool takes this experience online.
You can design and organize detailed, customized card sorting studies that start with a blank canvas. This flexibility allows you to tailor studies based on specific goals and products. While Miro's main limitation is the lack of post-study analytics, its strength lies in offering an experience close to physical card sorting. You'll find Miro excellent if you want a digital tool that replicates an in-person session’s feel.
Pricing: Free, with paid plans starting at $10/month.
UX Tweak is a versatile option that supports open, closed, and hybrid sorting. It excels in creating and managing card-sorting exercises. Thanks to its website widget, you’ll find it easy to share the test with respondents. A standout feature is the ability to incentivize participation with rewards. Users can tailor messages for their audience, from welcome notes to thank you messages. This personalization enhances user engagement.
Moreover, UX Tweak allows the creation of custom questionnaires. You can administer these before or after your study. This feature ensures that only your target audience progresses to the UX research phase.
Other impressive features include session recording and unmoderated testing. These provide in-depth insights into the user experience. Additionally, UX Tweak offers a Respondent Pool and Recruiter Widget, further enhancing its utility in UX research.
Pricing: Free, with paid plans starting at €90/month.
You can use Trello, primarily a project management tool, for card sorting exercises. Its simple drag-and-drop interface allows participants to move cards into different categories easily. While it doesn't offer the specialized analysis features of dedicated card sorting tools, Trello is a flexible option that you can use for both remote and in-person sessions. It's also a familiar tool to many, which can reduce the learning curve for participants.
Pricing: Free, with paid plans starting at $5/user/month.
Google Sheets offers a manual yet effective way to sort cards. These tools demand more setup and lack the interactive features of specialized software, but they provide complete control over sorting and data analysis. Users often choose Google Sheets to analyze physical card sort results or seek a simple, cost-effective method.
Their ease of use and accessibility stand out. Most people already know how to use Excel or Google Sheets, which makes them an ideal choice. Their widespread availability means anyone with basic computer skills can use them effectively for card sorting.
Considerations for Choosing a Card Sorting Tool
You must consider several factors while choosing the right card-sorting tool for your project. Every tool includes unique features that cater to different needs and scenarios. Let’s look at four important considerations to guide your selection:
Study Size: Tools vary in their capacity to handle different study sizes. For larger studies, opt for tools with robust data-handling capabilities.
Study Format: Decide if your study will be remote or in-person. Tools designed for remote sorting have features like online collaboration, while in-person tools might focus more on physical interaction.
Analysis Needs: Assess the depth of analysis you require. Some tools come equipped with advanced analytics, ideal for detailed data interpretation.
Budget Constraints: Consider the cost of the tool. While some offer extensive features, they might be more expensive. Balance the need for features with what you can afford.
These considerations will help you choose a tool that fits your project's needs. It can enhance the overall effectiveness of your card-sorting exercise.
How to Run a Card Sort?
Conducting a card sort requires understanding each step thoroughly. This approach guarantees a seamless, efficient process and provides meaningful user behavior and preferences data. Let’s look at the steps to run a card sort:
1.Set Clear Objectives
As with any research methodology, you must establish what you want to learn. Next, consider whether card sorting is the best way to learn it.
2. Select the Right Tools
You’ll need some cards. Plain index cards or Post-it notes work well for an in-person card sort. You can use anywhere from a handful to about 100 (sometimes more, depending on the project). However, try to limit the number of cards to 50 for a virtual card sort.
You can find several card sorting tools online, such as OptimalSort, but applications like Trello, Miro, or GitHub can work well too. Using a card sorting tool offers a significant benefit: immediate availability for analysis on the computer. You avoid the tedious task of transferring results from physical cards to a spreadsheet.
3. Write Clear Instructions for Effective Participation
You must prepare your instructions before your card sort begins, whether physically or digitally. These must be clear so your participants know what to do. Good instructions are crucial for online card sorting.
Consider the questions people may ask, and if you’re conducting your card sort online, include the answers to those questions in your instructions. For an in-person card sort, prepare your answers in advance.
Participants may ask questions like:
This card fits with more than one group; can I put it in multiple places?
I don’t understand this card; can I exclude it?
There seems to be some content missing; can I add a card?
Another important factor to consider before you start is your analysis. Think about the optimal results you want; you may wish to have only five people in your sample or as many as 25. If you do an in-person card sort, figure out how to get your data from the physical world into the digital.
4. Organize the Content
Your content is one of the most critical parts of card sorting, if not the most. Your results will come from the content you give your participants; you must evaluate them well.
Donna Spencer describes some of the elements and their significance of your card sorting content:
If you’ve got an extensive content set, splitting them into several card sorts may be wise to get the desired results.
Steer clear of jargon. If people can’t understand your content, they won’t be able to group the cards that well. It may affect your results. People tend to force associations and make connections that aren’t there when they don’t fully understand the information. Ensure you use clear and direct content to get the best possible outcome.
5. Choose the Participants
The people you select for your card sort are really important; Donna Spencer explains what you need to consider.
You might wonder about the ideal number of participants for your card sort. Due to space and time constraints, you’ll find in-person card sorts easier to manage. In contrast, an online card sort might tempt you to include everyone in your contact list. Avoid this temptation. Too many responses can overwhelm the analysis. It's better to send the exercise to a small group first. This approach allows you to revise and adapt your card sort. If needed, you can always reach out to more people later.
6. Facilitate the Process
Start with an introduction, give your participants a bit of context, and go through the instructions. In a physical card sort, you can speak to your participants. But, if you do it remotely via Zoom or something similar, you must write them for most virtual cart sorts.
Don’t keep explaining or overhelp. One or some of your participants may likely look to you for guidance; you can repeat the instructions, but don’t go into more detail. You’ll get better results if they carry on without further assistance.
It’s better not to tell the people in your card sort that they’ll label the groups they create. Unfortunately, you can’t do this in a virtual card sort with an online tool. Language and labels will influence the categories—your participants will think more about the categories than the content that goes into them. You’ll lose the fluidity of the card-sorting process.
Take notes during the card sorting process, and listen to what your participants say. Try not to hover, as this can hinder the organic conversation between the participants.
Offering incentives can make a big difference in getting people to participate in your research, especially online card sorts. When you reward participants, they will engage better with your study. You’ll find this valuable in virtual settings where people commit less. Think about what might motivate your participants. You could provide a small gift, a discount voucher, or even a chance to win something bigger.
7. Analyze the Results
You'll likely find analysis easier with an online card sort, as it directly inputs results into your computer. For an in-person card sort, you can use numbers and a spreadsheet to simplify the analysis. Number each card and put it into your spreadsheet along with the card’s content; then, all you have to do is input the numbers.
First, you want to get an overview. Donna Spencer shares how you do this:
Then, go into more depth, compare participants in detail, and see the similarities and differences in their results. And look at what insights you can pull from the variations you find. For an IA, did they all make an “About Us” section? If so, what cards did they put into that group? Sometimes, people will create the same groupings but put different cards into the groupings. You can also look at specific cards and see where each person puts them.
Remember, this is a qualitative research exercise, so you’re trying to gain insights. You want to discover what’s interesting or what stands out in your results. Review your user research objectives and what you wanted to learn from the card sort.
Learn more about quantitative and qualitative user research in this video.
Finally, apply your findings to your project. It’s best to combine them with other research methods.
Card Sorting Tips and Best Practices
While you can leverage card sorting as a powerful tool in user experience research, its success hinges on how you conduct it. Consider this method a vital step in designing intuitive interfaces.
However, you must adhere to certain tips and best practices to fully capitalize on its benefits. These guidelines help you conduct productive card-sorting sessions that yield actionable results.
Prepare Your Cards Carefully: Use relevant and straightforward cards. Avoid jargon and complex terms. The clarity of your cards can impact the quality of your results.
Select Participants Wisely: Choose a diverse group of participants representing your target audience. This diversity brings varied perspectives.
Set Up a Comfortable Environment: Whether online or in-person, make sure you provide a user-friendly sorting environment. For online sorts, choose a tool that's easy to navigate. In-person, ensure a comfortable and distraction-free space.
Give Clear Instructions: Provide participants with concise, understandable instructions. Clarify any ambiguities and be ready to answer questions. Good instructions lead to more accurate sorting.
Limit the Number of Cards: Too many cards can overwhelm participants. Aim for a balanced number that's comprehensive yet manageable, typically around 40-50 cards.
Encourage Open Thinking: Encourage participants to think freely in open sorts. This openness can lead to innovative categorizations and unexpected insights.
Observe and Take Notes: Observe quietly during the sort. Note how participants interact with the cards and listen to their comments. These user observations can be as valuable as the sort itself.
Analyze Results With Precision: Post-sort, spend time analyzing the results. Look for patterns, outliers, and surprising groupings. This detailed analysis is where the real value of card sorting lies.
Be Open to Iteration: Don't hesitate to run multiple card sorting sessions. Iterations can refine your understanding and lead to more robust conclusions.
Test Beforehand: Test your method before using card sorting. This ensures its effectiveness and tailors it for meaningful insights.
The Take Away
Card Sorting reveals user thinking patterns. This method provides valuable insights for your project. When running your card sort, consider key factors like objectives, tools, content, and participants. You’ll find the process straightforward, but you must consider each element. Card sorting offers invaluable insights, though it may not always provide clear results. In short, card sorting stands out as a go-to research technique due to its low cost, minimal effort, and simplicity.
References and Where to Learn More
Dive deeper into card sorting with Donna Spencer’s Master Class, How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture
Learn how to run card sorts and what tools to use:
William Hudson explains How to Screen Research Participants